When Nick Lund found out that a rare bird native to Asia was spotted near the Taunton River on Monday, he immediately dropped what he was doing, hopped in a car with several friends, and headed south — in all due haste — from Maine, determined to see it for himself.
“Two hours [drive] is nothing for a bird like this,” Lund, advocacy and outreach manager for Maine Audubon, said by email. “This is a dream bird, a species I never thought I’d see in the wild.”
But when the group arrived at the spot where they had hoped to glimpse the Steller’s sea eagle, a massive bird of prey that nests along the eastern coast of Russia and can be found in parts of China, Japan, and Korea, they were greeted by the words that every birder dreads: “You just missed it!”
Luckily, they got a tip from a fellow birder that the eagle had flown slightly north, so there was still time. A few minutes later, they pulled into Dighton Rock State Park in Berkley. There, just across the river, high up in the trees, was the majestic creature.
“Just screaming and yelling joy,” Lund, who has a website called “The Birdist,” said of the experience.
The baffling arrival of the eagle marked a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the birding community Monday, as crowds of people flocked to the river’s edge for a chance to witness the unexpected visitor.
Experts believe that it is very likely the same eagle that apparently went off course more than a year ago and has been popping up in unexpected places across North America ever since, fascinating bird lovers along the way.
“We’ve never had one here in this area of the world: the Northeast coast of North America or Massachusetts,” said Andrew Vitz, the state’s ornithologist. “This is like the bird of the decade for people around here.”
Steller’s sea eagles — “often called the world’s most magnificent bird of prey,” according to the San Diego Zoo — have a wingspan of up to 8 feet, and can weigh between 13 and 20 pounds. Their diet primarily consists of fish, but they also prey on waterfowl. The species is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with an estimated total population of about 4,000.
Officials said they first learned about the bird’s presence in Massachusetts last week, when someone who helps monitor the state’s bald eagle population saw it along the Taunton River and sent pictures to MassWildlife’s district office.
When he saw them, Vitz was stunned.
“It was like, ‘Holy smokes! Is that a legitimate photograph?’” he said. “I was super excited.”
Vitz said while the bird’s plumage and size are captivating, the most interesting thing about its arrival is that it could well be the same one seen sporadically in other parts of the country and Canada over the past year.
According to the New York Times, a “rogue” Steller’s sea eagle was first seen on Alaska’s Denali Highway in August 2020. Last summer, the bird was identified in Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada, before popping up again in Nova Scotia in November. It’s believed the bird at one point also made a slight detour to Texas, the Times reported.
“We don’t have confirmation that it is” the same one, said Vitz, since the images they’ve seen aren’t quite clear enough to know for sure. “But given the rarity of the bird, it’s highly likely ... This bird is moving. It’s probably trying to find some familiar faces out there — others of its own species.”
If it is the same nomadic bird, it probably arrived in the US and Canada after getting caught in a storm or other weather-related event, Vitz said. But it’s not in danger here in Massachusetts, and there are no plans for wildlife officials to capture or tag the bird, he said.
“We are somewhat used to getting rare vagrant birds from Europe that get blown across the Atlantic, but this bird being native to eastern Russia and Japan is completely unexpected,” Vitz said. “The good news is that it appears to be doing well, and the habitat and climate here are not so different from that in its natural winter range.”
MassWildlife, the state’s conservation agency, announced the arctic bird’s arrival on Facebook Monday. The post, which was shared more than 2,800 times, included a picture of the commanding eagle with its large, bright-yellow beak and a stark white stripe along its wing.
Last week, a rare Steller’s sea eagle was spotted along the Taunton River in Massachusetts, thousands of miles away from...Posted by Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife on Monday, December 20, 2021
“Beautiful bird. Hope he makes his way back home,” one person responded.
“This thing flew from Asia, to the Taunton River??? That’s determination,” another replied.
While birders are seizing on an exceedingly rare opportunity — there were an estimated 200 people at Dighton Rock State Park on Monday — officials are reminding the public to be respectful of the bird’s space.
Marion Larson, a spokeswoman for MassWildlife, said while “this bird showing up in this part of the world is a pretty big deal,” it’s important not to disturb it.
“We want everyone to be ethical and responsible in trying to observe the bird,” she said.
The state offers tips on its website on how to “share a responsibility for conserving wildlife,” including keeping a reasonable distance from animals and respecting public and private property.
Still, as word of the bird’s perch along the Taunton River spread, it sent some bird-watching enthusiasts into a flurry of excitement.
On Massachusetts Rare Bird Alert, a Facebook page for updates about bird sightings that has thousands of members, people said they were driving from hours away to see the eagle, which was on the Dighton side of the river by the afternoon.
“Most likely, there will be people coming much further than that just to have a chance to see this bird,” Vitz said.
Lund predicted there could be “thousands of birders looking for this bird in the coming days.”
“I abandoned my Christmas Bird Count in Maine to come out,” he said. “I would have abandoned many more important responsibilities, too.”
Dee McKee, office manager at Shaw’s Boat Yard in Dighton, said excited spectators arrived at the river’s edge by the dozens after the eagle was spotted high up in the trees, just beyond some of the company’s docks.
“We are a lot busier than we ought to be right now,” she said, adding that the boat yard’s owner allowed some photographers on the property so they could capture images of the stunning bird.
McKee even stepped outside to see it for herself. Like others, “she couldn’t resist.”
“He is pretty amazing,” McKee said. “He was sitting below a juvenile bald eagle and he was quite impressive; he had quite the beak on him.”
Lund said it was a fun day all around — “a classic ‘drop everything’ birding experience.” To commemorate, he purchased a bottle of Russian vodka at the New Hampshire State Liquor Outlet on the way home.
To safe travels.
You start the day ready for a Christmas Bird Count and then the extraordinary happens… https://t.co/xj7h5wZ3j0— Maine Audubon (@MaineAudubon) December 21, 2021
Steve Annear can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.